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Dubbed "the champagne of yogurts" by cultured culture connoisseurs, kefir, like all members of the yogurt family, is the end result of milk that has undergone bacterial fermentation. But your standard-issue Dannon cup will never be able to boast kefir's historical pedigree.
According to lore, the Prophet Mohammed first bequeathed kefir (commonly pronounced kuh-FEAR) to the inhabitants of the Caucasus region — a post-Soviet enclave that today comprises Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia — more than 1,000 years ago. The actual word is believed to have originated from the Turkish root "keif," which translates roughly into "pleasure." Considering its longevity, it's surprising that this multipurpose treat doesn't get more attention.
The biggest difference between kefir and other yogurt varieties is that the vital fermentation process is carried out by 30 unique bacterial strains and more than a dozen different yeasts; the average yogurt usually contains only a paltry six strains of bacteria and is devoid of yeast altogether. Kefir's colony of microflora is encapsulated in "grains," white, gelatinous clumps that resemble a bunch of miniature cauliflower florets. And kefir, which can be consumed as a drink, also differs from standard-issue yogurt in both taste and texture: It's a pungent, lumpy brew with a viscosity that can best be described as "paint-esque." But regardless of suspect appearance, it delivers a refreshingly zesty tang to the palate.
Tastiness notwithstanding, kefir's biggest selling point is how it'll make you feel — its potent microflora mixture renders it a powerful probiotic beverage. For starters, the bacteria helps maintain a healthy GI tract — while run-of-the-mill yogurt only feeds the existing bacteria in your gut, kefir actually populates it with fresh microflora.
While it sounds bizarre, the benefits of nurturing a blooming bacterial field of in your body are numerous. Its presence combats the growth of harmful bacteria, thus aiding in your body's immune functions; it also contains enzymes that break down lactose, making it gentler to digest for the lactose intolerant. But perhaps the most evident benefit that comes with the regular consumption of kefir is just that — it keeps you regular.
Fresh Made, a company based in Northeast Philadelphia, was well aware of kefir's potential health benefits when it became the first commercial producer of kefir in the United States in 1982. Using herbicide-, pesticide- and preservative-free milk sourced from Amish producers, Fresh Made offers skim and whole kefir as well as various fruit-flavored varieties. (Check out all of their products at freshmade.us.) "I recommend everyone to try drinking kefir twice a day for one month," says Fresh Made GM and Russian native Mark Mandel. "They will see the difference in they way they look and the way they feel."
In fact, were it not for Fresh Made, which I randomly selected one day from the dearth of yogurts on display at my local grocery, I may never have discovered kefir and all its glory. Not long after purchasing my first quart, I happened upon a kefir-cultured wedge of cheese produced by New York-based Finger Lakes Dexter Creamery. Stymied by these random encounters with the hitherto unknown substance, I decided to call the creamery to find out more.
After speaking with Finger Lakes co-owner Rose Marie Belforti, she offered to mail me some kefir grains so I could make my very own at home (see below). A few days later, I received a package containing a Ziploc bag stuffed with wet, cheesy-smelling blobs. This is one of the greatest things about the stuff: Since it's a self-propagating bacterium, kefir grains are constantly thriving, so once your stash has reached capacity, it's tradition to pass on extra to someone else. In fact, feel free to e-mail me — my grains are growing right now.